Rockets falling from the sky could kill you, astronomers warn

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Look alive there.

Add rockets to the list of reasons to look both ways before crossing the street – or doing just about anything outdoors and under cover of an untenable structure.

The billionaire space race, commercial spaceflight and use of satellite technology increase the chances of being crushed by a falling spacecraft, a new study published in Nature Astronomy warned on Monday. Scientists have estimated a nearly 10% chance that a falling rocket will actually kill someone on the ground within the next decade.

According to the researchers, the risk increases depending on where you are, especially for those in the South, who are likely to see a greater proportion of space junk land due to the Earth’s rotation and the way launches are made.

“It’s a statistically small risk, but it’s not negligible, and it’s growing — and it’s completely avoidable,” lead study author Michael Byers, a political science professor, told The Verge. at the University of British Columbia. “So should we take the available measures to eliminate the risk of an accident?” I think the answer should be yes.

Rockets are designed to collapse as they propel themselves away from the planet, and some of their debris ends up floating in space (threatening astronauts) while other pieces descend back to Earth. As spacecraft pass through each atmosphere, they lose dead weight used at various stages, consisting of fuel tanks, thrusters, and other parts needed only during the initial launch. This is one of the reasons why most launches take place close to shore – so that rocket waste falls safely into the ocean.

The launch stages take place in the first minutes after takeoff. On June 5, 2022, China’s Shenzhou 14 (pictured) entered orbit after 577 seconds.
Xinhua News Agency via Getty Ima

The fear of disaster became very real in 2020, when a 12-meter-long pipe and other debris from China’s Long March 5B rocket headed for Côte d’Ivoire in Africa, landing in two villages, but – fortunately – not killing anyone.

It almost happened again last year when a 100-foot-tall part of a Chinese rocket, which weighed 20 metric tons, made a sharp call as it flew over cities like New York and Madrid before landing. eventually land in the Indian Ocean. The incident inspired research by Byers and his team, they said.

Galactic travel entrepreneurs such as SpaceX’s Elon Musk have sought a more economical approach to spaceflight, guiding these parts to salvageable areas where they can be reused for another launch. But he’s still working on the issues: In 2015, one of their launches dumped two refrigerator-sized fuel tanks, both of which landed in Indonesia.

An analysis of the last 30 rocket launches found that cities like Jakarta, Mexico City and Lagos are at least three times more likely to be hit by rebel rocket debris compared to cities further north of the equator, like New York, Washington, DC or Beijing.

“The risk at the individual level is really, really small [but] if you live in a densely populated city at 30 degrees north latitude, that should be of more concern to you,” Byers explained, because most drops occur along the equator — a movement that makes satellite tracking easier. Additionally, there are several densely populated cities along the equatorial line, which contributes to an individual’s “significantly increased risk” in these areas.

Researchers have reported that potential death from falling rocket waste is preventable through legislation and government funding, such as an international agreement to move smaller payloads, conserving enough fuel to steer the pieces safely. towards Earth. Researchers cited the 1987 Montreal Protocol as an example of a successful collective effort, which rid the world of ozone-depleting substances and repaired our planet’s UV shield.

“General aviation practice is to maximize safety. And we believe the same approach should be taken for space launches,” Byers said.

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